Ending The Special Election Merry Go-Round

Assemblyman Ted Lieu, who joined us at Calitics yesterday for an online town hall, has an op-ed with Gautam Dutta of the New America Foundation arguing for an election reform he will soon combine with a bill, to institute instant runoff voting for all special elections in California.

Here’s the root of the problem. On March 24, 2009 barely 6 percent of registered voters showed up for a special election to fill a vacancy for California’s 26th Senate District. In an area with almost 1 million residents and 400,000 registered voters, only 23,000 civic-minded citizens decided who would replace former State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas (newly elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors).

How much did this special election cost? A whopping $2.2 million of our tax dollars – nearly $100 per voter – according to the Los Angeles Registrar-Recorder / County Clerk.

Unfortunately, we’re not even close to being finished. Since no candidate won a majority, we must hold a second election that will cost even more money. Because this is a heavily Democratic district, it is certain the Democratic nominee, Assemblymember Curren Price, will win. Yet Mr. Price must wait two months for a second election before he can be sworn in as State Senator.

Far from being “special”, special runoff elections cost millions of tax dollars to administer – at a time when governments have been forced to lay off schoolteachers and workers.

Obviously, the Assemblyman is making the fiscal responsibility argument for combining low-turnout special elections through IRV.  But there’s another crucial argument to be made – the irresponsible delay in proper representation in the legislature.  Mark Ridley-Thomas was elected to the LA County Board of Supervisors in November, and his replacement won’t take office until May.  That’s unacceptable, and especially so in California, where the Yacht Party uses the conservative veto to hijack the budget process.  With a faster resolution of the Ridley-Thomas seat, for example, Republicans would have one less vote to use as leverage for the budget.

And this is more acute in the case of special elections for Congress in CA-32 and CA-10.  Imagine, for example, if Sen. Gil Cedillo wins the Solis seat.  He could be replaced by a sitting Assemblymember, which is the logical scenario.  Then THAT Assembly seat needs to be filled.  By the time all the special elections and runoffs are complete, we’re well into 2010.

Enough.  Instant runoff voting is a perfectly acceptable way to divine the will of the people without the need for a separate runoff election.  The aforementioned Mark Ridley-Thomas has called for a feasibility study into IRV for these special elections.  Lieu and Dutta explain:

With IRV, voters get to rank their choices, 1, 2, 3. If your first choice cannot win, your vote automatically goes to your second (i.e., runoff) choice. It’s like conducting a runoff election, but in a single election. If IRV had been used last night, the election for the Senate district would be finished.

IRV has already been adopted by San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, Memphis, and Santa Fe. Currently, Louisiana, South Carolina and Arkansas all use IRV for overseas voters. A number of prominent leaders have endorsed IRV, including: President Barack Obama, Senator John McCain, California Controller John Chiang, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. Influential civic groups also support IRV, including: Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, Los Angeles League of Women Voters, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Asian American Action Fund, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, and New America Foundation.

This is not only a budget issue, it’s the right reform for California.  Let’s end the special election merry go-round.

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